One of the most common methods of testing a student’s knowledge is the multiple choice question template that asks the examinee to identify one of four options as correct solutions to a problem. The pedagogic principle behind these questions is simple enough: We live in a world where truth and accuracy are important. No matter what our subjective feelings, impressions, memories or instincts might be, we need to rely on verifiable facts to make a truth claim. If we fail to do so, there would be negative consequences.
This basic process of truth telling loses all affordance in social media practices. Let me channel my inner school teacher and present you with a question. Drawing on samples of WhatsApp messages on my social media feeds, I invite you to answer this simple question: Which of these statements is not true?
1. Drinking from disposable paper cups lined with wax to keep the liquid from seeping leads to wax deposits in your stomach, resulting in fatal health risks.
2. Beverages in India have been contaminated by the Ebola virus and are on our shelves right now.
3. According to Ayurveda, burning camphor and cardamom together kills the swine flu virus in air.
4. Bollywood actor Farida Jalal is dead.
Of all of these, the only one you can verify is that Farida Jalal is not dead. The reason we know it for sure is because, she had to come to Twitter, and like Oscar Wilde, announce that the rumours of her death were wildly exaggerated. As Jalal herself pointed out in an interview, she was harassed by a barrage of phone calls, of people calling her up to ask her (oh, the irony!) if she was dead. The other three claims are right now floating in the air, ready to settle down as truth, with continuous repetition. We cannot be sure that they are inaccurate. Especially because they don’t just come as one-line headlines but long narratives of imaginary proofs.
Why have we reached this post-truth moment? Why have our social media feeds become minefields of dubious information masquerading as lies? There are many laments lately about how this lack of veracity and fact-checking is becoming the new normal and the blame is always put on either the media that promotes accelerated spread of messages without space for reflection, or gullible people who do not pause to think about the ludicrousness of the message before they spread it to their groups. And, while it is necessary to develop a critical literacy to make sure that we understand the responsibility of our role as information circulators and curators, there is one dimension that needs to be explored more — trust.
In our pre-digital knowledge practices, when information came with a signature, we believed that somebody had done the due diligence needed for the information to be published. An author’s book was supported by the rigour of the publisher behind it. A news report was fact-checked by verifiers who are employed precisely to do that. Information from a friend or somebody we know was credible because of our assessment of the person’s expertise and knowledge. We have always been able to determine the source of information, and our proximity with the source allowed us to trust the information that came through it.
However, with social media, this relationship has changed. When somebody sends us a message on WhatsApp, it is still coming from a source that we know, but we have to realise that this source is not producing or verifying this information, but merely circulating it. Messages come with a signature, they seem to emerge from people we know and trust, and, hence, we presume that they have done the due diligence required before passing on the information.
It is important to realise that within the social web we don’t really parse, analyse or process information, we merely pass and distribute it. This is how digital media perceives its users — as information circulators. And, this means, that information which mimics facts but is blatantly false, finds easy prey. So, the next time you come across information on these endless message groups, ask a simple question before you pass it along: no matter what the message claims, can you actually locate the source of the information? Is the person who forwards that message producing the information or merely sharing it? If they are sharing it, get back to them and ask how they know what they know. We trust things that are authored, but in our social apps, people are not authors, they are circulators. Making the distinction between the two might be the first step towards developing a critical literacy for fact-telling on the digital web.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.